What is an emotional affair?
Emotional affair new term that people are using to describe overly-close emotional relationships. The first time I remember seeing this term is in the book Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass. While an emotional affair does not include sex, it is often the first step on the slippery slope to having a sexual affair.
Before we get started I’d like to state that this is about emotional infidelity, and does not apply directly to open relationships unless you’re breaking your agreement with your partner. I’ll leave that topic for another day. This discussion is intended for monogamous relationships.
Let’s take a look at the signs you are having an emotional affair. We will also review the differences between an emotional affair and a physical affair. We will answer the question of which is worse an emotional affair or a physical affair. And we will look at some signs your partner is having an emotional affair.
Signs of an Emotional Affair
Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass mentions several ways to tell if you are having an emotional affair. I’m going to mention this book a lot. It’s my go-to for giving to my clients for both emotional and physical affairs. I often assign it to couples counseling clients who have experienced an affair in their relationship. The information below comes from this book as well as from couple therapy training I’ve received in Gottman Method Couple Therapy, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) and my own experience as a marriage and family therapist.
Who do you talk to more?
Emotional affairs are all about the little things. One of the signs you are having an emotional affair is that you are talking to the friend more than your significant other about your day to day life.
In a healthy relationship, one of the things that increases emotional intimacy with your partner is talking about your day, your life and your experiences. You tell them about the good things and what frustrates you.
In a platonic relationship you also talk with your friend about your day. However, when you start to talk to them more than your partner then the trouble begins. You start to become closer to whomever you spend the most time having intimate conversation with.
Who knows how you feel about your relationship?
Another sign of an emotional affair is that you are talking to your friend instead of your partner about things that your relationship. This includes talking about things that bother you about your partner or the relationship as well as talking about the intimate details of your relationship.
Let me clarify that the big problem here is that you are talking to your friend instead of your partner. Talking to a friend about your husband leaving the seat up is ok. Talking to them when you haven’t told your husband that you’re upset about it is the problem.
You hide how close you are
Another sign of emotional infidelity is that your partner doesn’t know how close you are to your friend. If your partner does not know how much time you spend with the friend, how often you text, or the emotional depth of the relationship, this can be considered emotional cheating. After all, what makes an affair is the secrecy and the betrayal.
You hide the content of your conversations
Would you feel comfortable if your partner overheard what you say to your friend? How about what you text them? If you aren’t comfortable with this, then you may be doing some emotional cheating. The goal isn’t that your partner knows every little thing you say or monitors you. However, if you know what you’re saying would hurt your partner or if it would be uncomfortable for you if you were overheard you’re likely crossing a line.
What if your partner saw you with your friend?
Another sign of emotional infidelity is feeling uncomfortable if your partner saw how you act with your friend in person. Again, affairs are a breach of the agreement between you and your partner. If you feel that your partner would be hurt or upset by seeing a video tape of how you act with your friend, then there is a conversation that needs to be had with your partner and your friend.
The problem with this, again, is the secrecy. If you are feeling the need to hide details of the friendship from your spouse, ask yourself why. Maybe you need to talk to your partner about their expectations of your interactions with friends, or maybe you’re being emotionally unfaithful.
Is there sexual tension in your friendship?
One of the ways to figure out if you’re too emotionally invested in your relationship is to ask yourself if there is sexual tension in your relationship. I am not talking about sexual contact here, just a basic, physical attraction. Just having sexual tension in a friendship does not make it an affair, but if you’re hiding this from your partner, that’s when the trouble begins.
Do you touch your friend differently when no one’s around?
Another big indicator of an emotional affair is your nonsexual intimacy with your friend and how this is expressed. Do you keep them at arms length when in public or in front of your partner, but things are different behind closed doors? Maybe when you’re alone or away from your partner you touch more or differently. If this is the case, you’re definitely in emotional affair territory.
Are you in love with your friend?
This one should be obvious, but most people thing that if there is no physical intimacy, then everything is ok. Take a deep breath and ask yourself if you are in love with your friend. If you are, then this is a type of infidelity. If your relationship agreement does not include allowing for this emotional intimacy with someone else, then you are having an emotional affair.
Emotional Affairs vs. Physical Affairs
There is a difference between emotional affair and physical affairs. An emotional affair does not have to have any physical content. A physical affair may not have any emotions involved. Some affairs are one or the other. Some affairs are both emotional and physical.
Is an emotional affair worse than a sexual affair?
The answer to this question is it depends. Some partners feel that emotional affairs are worse than physical affairs. This is especially the case if you are in love with the affair partner. Other partners aren’t as concerned about the emotional intimacy, but draw the line at physical intimacy outside of the romantic relationship.
If you are telling yourself that an emotional affair doesn’t matter, then you may be fooling yourself. If your partner feels betrayed by your actions, an emotional affairs are just as destructive to a romantic relationship as physical affairs.
Signs Your Partner Is Having an Emotional Affair
All you ever talk about is so and so…
Often people start to suspect they have an unfaithful partner when they constantly hear about one particular friend or coworker constantly. Hearing about one friend over and over denotes an emotional attachment, but not always a bad one.
Listen to how your partner talks about the friend. What do they say? I would be especially worried if you are getting compared to the friend in a negative fashion. Hearing things like, “why can’t you be more like my friend.” are red flags. Even if it’s not a sign of infidelity, it means there is something wrong in your relationship.
What happened to so and so?
One red flag that close friendships have turned into emotional affairs is that your partner no longer talks about their friend. If you were hearing about a close friend on a regular basis, and now there’s silence about this person, now is the time to ask questions.
Healthy friendships ebb and flow, but they don’t just go away abruptly. Someone in a non-emotional, platonic friendship will mention their friend. If this stops, ask your partner about the friend and see what they say. If they’re still spending time with the friend but not talking about them, this might be a good time to dig further into the topic.
They stop spending as much time with you
If your partner is spending less time with you, this is always a reason to have a discussion. It could be the normal ebb and flow of the relationship, or it could mean that they are pulling away from you. This, by itself, does not mean they are having an affair, but it is a good reason to have a relationship talk.
They’re spending more time with their friend than in the relationship
If your partner is spending all of their time with their friend and relatively little of it with you, this is definitely a sign of a problem. We need to spend time with our partner in order to get our needs met, meet their needs and keep the relationship healthy. If they’re spending all their time with other people then they are either shutting down their emotional needs or getting them met elsewhere.
The amount of sex and intimacy has gone down
Has the amount of sex and physical touch in your relationship gone down? This could be the sign of an emotional affair or other problem in the relationship. As with the above, needs for sex and touch have to get met to keep things healthy. If they aren’t getting met in the relationship, then they are being suppressed or met in another fashion.
The amount of sex and intimacy has gone up
This one may sound surprising, but sometimes when an emotional or physical affair is happening your partner wants even more sex from you. This could happen for several reasons. They may feel guilty for getting some of their needs met elsewhere. They could be extra turned on from interactions with their affair partner. They could also be getting the emotional needs met elsewhere but not willing to have sex with the emotional affair partner, and that sexual energy gets pointed in your direction.
Your partner is withdrawing
If your partner is withdrawing from the relationship, affair or no, this is a big issue and needs to be discussed. It means that your relationship is in jeopardy. If your partner is withdrawing it leaves you both needy and leaves you both susceptible to attractive others who are willing to meet the needs you aren’t getting met in the relationship.
Your partner is acting out of character
Is your partner acting much differently than usual? New hobbies that are out of their norm? Staying at work until all hours when they’ve never been a workaholic? New, sexy clothes and a gym membership? Some of these can be growth or even meant for you. Others can be a sign of dissatisfaction in the relationship. This is time to talk with your partner about your concerns.
We’re just friends
Have you tried talking to your partner about their friend? If you have and they have gotten defensive and angry, this could be a sign of an emotional affair. Having someone tell you that they’re “just friends” and making it sound like you are the problem can be a sign of guilt or a way to hide what is going on. If your partner can talk about things calmly and reasonably (assuming you are doing the same) then you can work through a solution. Defensiveness is a sign of relationship problems, even when it is not the sign of an affair.
What to do when there’s an emotional affair
If there is an emotional affair in your relationship, whether it’s you or your partner, you need to talk about it. Discuss what is going on and why. If you cannot talk about it by yourselves, or if you cannot find a solution alone, couples therapy can help you discuss the problem and find a solution. It can also help you both understand how to avoid affairs in the future.